Queer Films

Welcome to Reel Queer! We are two students exploring ideas and themes in queer films throughout history. We watch one movie and produce a detailed blog post every week from March to June 2012.

Apr 3

The Celluloid Closet

To start off this blog we watched The Celluloid Closet. The trailer can be watched here.

The Celluloid Closet is a 1995 American documentary film written and directed by Rob Epstein based on the novel of the same name by Vito Russo. The movie gives an overview on the history of queer representation in films. A full list of films depicted in The Celluloid Closet can be found here. We also read an article titled From The Celluloid Closet to Brokeback Mountain: The Changing Nature of Queer Film Criticism by Michael Bronski.

We decided to start the quarter with this film because it gives a good overview of the history of queer representation in films. It began with the first record of gay men in film, with Edison Experiment in 1895, a black-and-white film depicting a man playing violin while two men slow dance together. As the film industry progressed, queer people were rarely depicted. When they were, they were characters generally depicted for laughs, to pity, or to fear.

The most common depiction of queer people in film back then (and even now!) is as comedic sidekicks or background characters. Gay men were shown as “prissy,” with heavy make-up and “swishy” walks so that audiences knew who was supposed to be homosexual so they knew who to laugh at. This trope was often taken even further, with men cross-dressing as the butt of jokes. One person in The Celluloid Closet said, “There is no sin like being a woman.” However, one positive depiction of cross-dressing shown was with Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, as her dressing in a suit was taken seriously. The filmmakers didn’t try to hide the queer undertones or make a joke out of it.

In the 1920s and 1930s films began getting raunchy, with more sexual and violent scenes. In retaliation, Will Hays created the Hays Production Code, which served to censor Hollywood films. This means that certain men could take out certain scenes of movies for theatrical release or even change whole plots and characters. Many of these men had ties with the Catholic church so they censored many gay themes and characters from films. However, this did not stop queer representation in films but made it more underhanded, as a wink-wink-nudge-nudge to the audience. This also brought an onslaught of queers, especially lesbians, as villains. Most of these lesbian characters were either stripped of their femininity or just completely creepy and sometimes even supernatural beings.

The 1950s brought a decade of hyper-masculinity. Men in films (and thus in real life) were constantly afraid of seeming gay so they tried their best to act more masculine. However, there were certain examples of homosexual undertones in films that weren’t completely offensive, such as in Rebel Without a Cause and Calamity Jane. In both these films, the scriptwriters specifically wrote two same-sex characters (one in each film, respectively) who were to be perceived as homosexual, but because it wasn’t explicit, the films passed censorship and made it big. There was a code of queer subtext that the audience had to be clued into in order to understand; this was perhaps easier for a queer audience to pick up on as well.

However, at this time there were still many bad representations of queers in film. The vast majority of gay characters in films either ended up killing themselves or were killed by others, which did not send a good message to audiences about the representation of queers in real life. 

During the gay liberation movement there were better examples of queers in film but it certainly did not end homophobia or bad representation of queer folk. People in movies continued to use the word “fag” as a light-hearted insult and depicted the queer lifestyle as dangerous and violent. When the film Making Love was released in 1982, the industry had to add a disclaimer warning audiences about the inclusion of gay sex and gay relationships, even though the sex itself was tame in comparison to many straight sex scenes in popular films at the time. One of the actor’s agents even advised them against taking the part, saying it would hurt his career.

The Celluloid Closet also commented on affection between people of the same sex, as it is much more accepted between women than between men. However, lesbian relationships are more often written as cheap titillation for male audiences. 

Of course none of these tropes are bad by themselves but the problem arises when the only representation of queer people in mainstream movies is through these lenses. FIlms tell audiences what to think and serve as a blueprint for society at-large so when queer people are only seeing themselves depicted as fools or villains they are made to feel inferior.

The film ended with the message that queer representation in movies is getting a lot better and we are beginning to see more realistic representations of queer people. This is the exact idea we want to explore throughout this Queer Films blog: Are there realistic and diverse representations of queer people in film and are they adequate for audiences to understand the presence of queer people in real life?

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